Perhaps that conversation was on Jordan's mind at the start of spring training this season, when he was having a casual discussion with a group of reporters about the escalating salaries in the NBA. With the time approaching when a player would command a $100 million contract, he was asked if he would return to the NBA for that kind of money. "My wife would make me," he said. "Look, when I return to the NBA...." Then he caught himself and smiled. "If I return to the NBA. I said if."
Jordan's return couldn't come at a better time for the league, which has been hit with a torrent of negative publicity in recent months, including a report last week that late Boston Celtic star Reggie Lewis may have died from the effects on his heart of cocaine use (page 26). Last Friday, just the rumor of Jordan's comeback helped the Detroit Pistons sell 2,000 tickets for their April 12 game with the Bulls. The same day fans in Atlanta bought 1,800 tickets in seven hours for the Hawks' March 25 game against Chicago.
Even those whose championship hopes could be dashed by Jordan's return realize the overall good his comeback will do. "They will be doing an Irish jig on the desks of the NBA office," said Pat Williams, general manager of the Eastern Conference-leading Magic. "I am sure the clubs in the East who feel this is the year they can [win it all] would say to themselves, 'Oh no, Michael, wait until July.' On the other hand, when you think about the impact on the game and what it would mean to the NBA, it would be an enormous jolt to a league."
Jordan's impact on the NBA's TV ratings, image and ledgers is undeniable. But what about on the court? Will he make the Bulls immediate championship contenders again? "With Michael Jordan. Yakima [of the CBA] would be an NBA championship contender," said Houston Rocket point guard Kenny Smith. "The man is that good."
That feeling is not unanimous. "If Michael can pull it off, it will be one of the great sports stories," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "But if it doesn't work, it takes away the clean ending of his career. I thought he went out strictly on his terms. Some other guys have tried to come back, and it didn't work out as well as they had hoped."
But most of those other athletes—Bob Cousy, Gordie Howe, Sugar Ray Leonard, to name three—didn't come back in their primes. The 6'6" Jordan is still at his playing weight of 212, and it isn't as if he has been inactive since he announced his retirement. Still, there is the question of how close he will be, after such a long layoff, to his old self (chart). The consensus seems to be that only Jordan could make up for nearly two years away from the game in a matter of weeks. "Two years?" said Magic guard Nick Anderson. "Man, please! That's like a timeout for him."
There seems to be little evidence that Jordan has lost any of his competitive juices. To the contrary, Chicago players reported that in his three practices last week he was as intense as ever and evinced the same caustic wit. "He was the best trash talker in the league, and he still is," said Harper, who, like his teammates, avoided asking Jordan if the comeback rumors were true. "The only thing we asked him," he said, "was to stay home, 'cause he was embarrassing guys."
But if Jordan hasn't changed, the Bulls—31-31 through Sunday—certainly have. Several key players from the Chicago team that Jordan led to consecutive championships in 1991, '92 and '93 are gone, most notably power forward Horace Grant. Without Grant, who went to the Magic as a free agent before the start of this season, the Bulls have had problems contending with opponents who have a strong inside presence, and that won't change even with Jordan. Still, the Bulls now will cause more problems than they will face. Jordan, Pippen, forward Toni Kukoc and guard B.J. Armstrong give Chicago as potent a four-man nucleus as any team in the league.
Should he indeed rejoin these Bulls. Jordan will play for the first time with the 6'11" Kukoc, a maturing second-year player whose remarkable passing skills will be enhanced with Jordan on the receiving end. Jordan's and Pippen's resentment of Chicago's long courtship of Kukoc, who at $3.25 million a year is the highest-paid Bull, is common knowledge, but any remaining bitterness is directed far more at Krause than at Kukoc. The blending of the talents of Jordan, Pippen and Kukoc is certain to produce some breathtaking basketball, while Armstrong should slide easily into his old role of spotting up for open jump shots when opponents double-team Jordan and Pippen.
If Jordan doesn't immediately make the Bulls championship material, he will at least make them a team no other club wants to draw in the playoffs. His return sets up some intriguing potential matchups. If the Bulls beat out the Atlanta Hawks for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference—as of Sunday, Chicago trailed by a half game—they would likely face the New York Knicks, who were seeded third at week's end, in the first round of the postseason. That would be a revival of what was the fiercest rivalry in the league before Jordan retired. Further down the line, there is the possibility that Chicago would meet Orlando and Jordan's old teammate. Grant, as well as center Shaquille O'Neal and guard Anfernee Hardaway, who entered the league last season and has never played a regular-season game against Jordan.